NFL offseason power rankings: No. 25 Arizona Cardinals have renewed hope with Jonathan Gannon and Marvin Harrison Jr.

Preview focus: Things are looking up thanks to a promising young coach and an exciting draft class

Hyped rookie wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. could be a true difference maker for the Cardinals this season. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)
Hyped rookie wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. could be a true difference maker for the Cardinals this season. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

When the Arizona Cardinals were coming off of Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 31, victorious over the Philadelphia Eagles, it didn't matter they were nearing the end of a 4-13 season.

What mattered in Jonathan Gannon's first season as head coach was progress, and signs that his players were buying in. Their growth was validated in a tough comeback win against an Eagles team desperately trying to hold onto first place in the NFC East. The Cardinals trailed 21-6 in that game, due in part to a 99-yard pick-6 and another Eagles touchdown with 16 seconds left in the first half. Either of those plays could have crushed a team that was far out of the playoff race, but the Cardinals kept battling. Philadelphia took a lead with 2:33 left in the fourth quarter. And on the road against the reigning NFC champions, the Cardinals fought back. They scored with 32 seconds left for a win that felt huge for a team looking to take steps forward with a new coach.

"I feel good for the players. Not for me, man," Gannon said after the win. "I feel good for the players."

While we can appreciate Gannon, the former Eagles defensive coordinator, not making the moment about himself, nobody should believe that. Everyone should have felt good about that win. Especially Gannon.

"I mean, we just played well enough today to win. You know what I mean?" Gannon said. "But our guys know if we play football the right way, we can play with anybody. And I know our record isn’t what we want it to be, and that falls on me. But they have confidence. They never waver."

The Cardinals were the rare four-win team with some great wins. They beat the Dallas Cowboys early in the season. They won at the Steelers and Eagles, a couple of road victories against playoff teams. Arizona had four wins overall but more quality wins than some teams in the playoffs. The Cardinals might have been better but Kyler Murray missed the first half of the season as he recovered from a torn ACL. The season was far from a success but the Cardinals should have felt confident about some of the things they saw in Gannon's first season.

The best news might end up being that none of those wins cost the Cardinals a shot at Marvin Harrison Jr. The Cardinals fell to the fourth overall pick, but they got lucky the first three teams in the draft all needed a quarterback. That allowed the Cardinals, who are already paying Murray big money, to pick arguably the best player in the draft regardless of position. Harrison was a dominant force at Ohio State and one of the best college receivers in many years. He's the rare receiver who could end up defining a franchise for a decade.

Harrison being an instant superstar would be huge for a Cardinals team that fell shockingly hard after a 10-2 start in 2021. They're 9-31 since then, including a listless playoff loss to the Rams at the end of that 2021 season. The Cardinals went 4-13 in 2022 and 4-13 in 2023, but the vibes from those seasons are far different. The Cardinals feel like they're back in the right direction with Gannon.

Murray came back from a torn ACL for the final eight games of last season and was pretty good given the circumstances. Murray turns 27 years old about a month before the season opener against the Buffalo Bills, was a No. 1 overall draft pick and considered to be worth a $230.5 million deal by the Cardinals two summers ago. The Cardinals should still feel confident in Murray as their quarterback.

The Cardinals are building around him. Trey McBride had a breakout season at tight end. It would be a surprise if Harrison isn't a very good receiver. Receiver Michael Wilson played well near the end of his rookie season and should benefit from the attention paid to Harrison and McBride. Arizona's draft class was considered strong and deep with eight picks in the top 104. The defense still needs a lot of work and the offensive line is a work in progress, but there are signs of a quick turnaround after the team fell apart at the end of the Kliff Kingsbury era.

The win over the Eagles was just one close result in a 4-13 season, and perhaps it said more about Philadelphia's collapse than the direction Arizona is heading. But the toughness the Cardinals displayed in that win should carry over. There are good feelings going into this season. And a new rookie receiver might help unlock a new level.

The Cardinals dabbled in free agency, not spending too much on anyone but adding talent at some key spots. They added defensive tackle Justin Jones, offensive tackle Jonah Williams, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and defensive end Bilal Nichols. All of those players got at least $7 million per season and Jones, Williams and Nichols will provide much-needed help on both lines. They didn't add any big names but signed multiple players who can start and are still at a prime age. The Cardinals did lose receiver Marquise Brown, closing the chapter on a trade with the Ravens that didn't work out well. Free agency wasn't the most important part of the Cardinals' offseason. The 2024 draft class will define which direction this team goes. They had two first-round picks and four third-round picks. The first pick, Marvin Harrison Jr., has franchise-changing talent. Darius Robinson was the other first-round pick and will help a defensive line that needed a boost. The 12-man class was mostly praised, and if it hits then the Cardinals' rebuild could accelerate quickly.

Grade: B+

Kyler Murray was brought back slowly after he tore his ACL late in the 2022 season. He didn't play until Week 10, but over the rest of the season he played mostly to his normal level. His completion percentage was a point lower than his career mark through the 2022 season. His passer rating was 89.4, compared to 92.5 for his first four seasons. Murray threw for 18 fewer passing yards per game than his previous career mark. However, all the key stats were nearly at his career norms. There were no obvious signs that Murray wasn't the same player. His numbers spiked in the final three games, when he posted a 108.3 passer rating, which is a likely indication he needed a few weeks to knock off some rust. Murray also made progress taking care of the ball. He had a turnover-worthy play (a Pro Football Focus stat) on just 1.8% of his passes, the second-best mark in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 250 attempts. Murray didn't run quite as much as usual but still had 255 yards in eight games. Murray might come just short of being an elite quarterback, but there's no reason to believe he lost anything with the ACL injury.

"This is the most confident I've seen him," Cardinals tight end Trey McBride told NFL Network. "This is the first year I've been fully healthy with him — he's fully healthy — I think everything is trending the right way. He has a ton of weapons out there and I have full confidence that he's capable of an MVP season."

There is some faith in the Cardinals in the betting market. The over on their win total of 6.5 at BetMGM is the popular side, with the odds being -160 (bet $160 to win $100) on the over. In terms of battling for a playoff spot, the Cardinals have a long way to go. They're expected to finish last in the NFC West based on the odds. They're 11-to-1 to win the division and +300 to make the playoffs. However, Marvin Harrison Jr. has the third-best odds to win Offensive Rookie of the Year behind only Caleb Williams and Jayden Daniels, the first two picks of the draft. Harrison is +650 to win the award.

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Hotshot rookie receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. is the splashy name in the Arizona passing game, but take note of tight end Trey McBride, who had a sneaky breakout year in his second season.

"McBride secured a starting job for good in Week 8, and he was fantasy royalty the rest of the way. Over that period, McBride totaled 66 catches (third at the position), 85 targets (second) and 655 yards (third). It hashed out to a TE4 ranking over that period, using half-point PPR scoring.

"McBride saw a whopping 26.7% target share over the second half of the year, a number that surely won't repeat with Harrison on board. But McBride's modest touchdown count (three) is likely to rise, especially with Kyler Murray playing a full season. The Cardinals don't have great receiver depth past Harrison, and the octane of the offense is likely to improve for 2024. McBride isn't a cheap tight end option with an ADP just outside the Top 50, but he has the profile and setup to meet or exceed his draft-day cost."

Find a defensive stat, and the 2023 Arizona Cardinals ranked near the bottom of the NFL in it. They were 27th in yards per pass allowed, tied for 29th in yards per rush allowed, 31st in passer rating allowed, 31st in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed, 30th in pass touchdowns allowed, 32nd in rushing yards allowed, 30th in yards per drive allowed, 31st in points per drive allowed and 32nd in DVOA. You get it. The Cardinals were bad on defense. They might be bad again this season, too. They couldn't pass on Marvin Harrison Jr. with the fourth overall pick, especially for any defensive prospect in a class that was weak on that side of the ball, but unless 27th overall pick Darius Robinson is a star then the Cardinals didn't add a sure blue-chip player to the defense. The last two Cardinals first-round picks on defense were Isaiah Simmons in 2020 and Zaven Collins in 2021. Simmons was traded last year and Collins has done very little. The Cardinals added some defensive players in free agency but none project as stars. Other than safety Budda Baker, there aren't any clear top-tier starters on the defense. If you like the Cardinals to be a surprise team this season, just remember that they'll have to overcome a defense that's likely to be in the bottom 10 of the NFL. And it could end up being No. 32.

There was some weird noise around Harrison in the offseason. He didn't participate in most of the NFL scouting combine, didn't sign his normal NFLPA licensing deal, was sued by Fanatics for breach of contract and didn't attend the NFLPA Rookie Premiere event. That all seems to be Harrison showing some defiance at the way the NFL typically treats incoming rookies and nothing the Cardinals need to worry much about. And if Harrison is as good as he was at Ohio State, nobody will remember anything else.

All of the early reviews were good as Harrison dazzled in practice.

"I can watch a dude and tell if he's got it," Kyler Murray said after a June minicamp practice, via the Cardinals' site. "He doesn't have to earn my trust."

Harrison had 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2022, saw quarterback C.J. Stroud go to the NFL, then had 1,211 yards and 14 touchdowns last season in one fewer game. He's remarkably polished and productive, which can happen when your dad is a Hall of Fame receiver. There have been 30 players in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie. It's hard to put that expectation on Harrison, but it would be a surprise if he doesn't join that group. It's not even outlandish to wonder if he can challenge Puka Nacua's rookie record of 1,486 yards last season. Harrison has that type of talent, will command targets from a good quarterback on a team that might have to pass it a lot, and already looked like an NFL veteran playing college football.

Maybe the Cardinals' offense is good enough to overcome the defensive flaws. Over the last few weeks of the season, Kyler Murray played very well. That was without Marvin Harrison Jr., who could be a star from Day 1. The Cardinals showed they can beat good teams last season. If the offense reaches its ceiling and the defense makes strides in Jonathan Gannon's second season, maybe the Cardinals are one of those surprise teams that's in playoff contention until late in the season.

The Cardinals were a four-win team last season, and the season before, and maybe they're not much better this season. Marvin Harrison Jr. looks like a can't-miss prospect but the NFL is hard and a lot of great players struggle in their first season. Even if the offense is good, the defense could be the worst in the NFL. Not many teams post a winning record with the worst defense in the league. It's difficult to imagine a scenario that gets Jonathan Gannon fired, but another double-digit loss season could put him on the hot seat going into 2025.

The Cardinals' offense should be fun. The receiving group of Marvin Harrison Jr., Michael Wilson, Greg Dortch and Trey McBride could be very good. James Conner is a productive, tough runner and Trey Benson was considered by some to be the best running back in the 2024 NFL Draft. There will be games in which Kyler Murray takes that group and simply outscores the opponent. But there will be many more games in which the Cardinals do fine on offense and the defense fails. Once Jonathan Gannon gets some defensive talent, that side of the ball will be fine. It'll take another offseason or two. Until then, the Cardinals might have a losing record but rank high on the entertainment scale. They're on the right path.